Monday, October 10, 2016

Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, by Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey wrote this collection of essays during and about the three seasons he spent as a lone park ranger at Arches National Monument in Utah, in the southwestern US. The book earned 7th place in the list of NatGeo Extreme Classics: The 100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time, which I think odd, as I find it neither extreme nor particularly adventurous. I much prefer the blurb that describes Abbey as "our very own desert father, a hermit loading up on silence and austerity and the radical beauty of empty places." I've done some trekking in the desert southwest, so his paeans to the landscape and its inhabitants all resonate with me. Nature is sacred, no matter the topology, but there is something about the vastness of the Utah sky that gives this area the feeling of an endless cathedral. And Abbey was an ideal man to safeguard it for three seasons.    
Other considerations come to mind. Arches National Monument is meant to be among other things a sanctuary for wildlife -- for all forms of wildlife. It is my duty as a park ranger to protect, preserve and defend all living things within the park boundaries, making no exceptions. Even if this were not the case I have personal convictions to uphold. Ideals, you might say. I prefer not to kill animals. I'm a humanist; I'd rather kill a man than a snake.
Much of the text consists of Abbey's philosophical and spiritual ruminations, often sitting at a makeshift picnic table with a beer at dusk. I wish more people would go into the back of beyond and acquire his understanding of the interrelationships between all species (and stay there until they do so.)
All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.
Abbey is, unsurprisingly, a bit of a curmudgeon, and his prickly humour suits me just fine.
I check the garbage can for trapped chipmunks, pick up a few bottle caps, and inspect the "sanitary facilities," where all appears to be in good order: roll of paper, can of lime, black widow spiders dangling in their usual strategic corners. On the inside of the door someone has written a cautionary note: "Attention: Watch out for rattlesnakes, coral snakes, whip snakes, vinegaroons, centipedes, millipedes, ticks, mites, black widows, cone-nosed kissing bugs, solpugids, tarantulas, horned toads, Gila monsters, red ants, fire ants, Jerusalem crickets, chinch bugs and Giant Hairy Desert Scorpions before being seated."
Desert Solitaire was first published in 1968.  Abbey harrumphed about the decision to allow cars into national parks. Occasionally I see articles about federal agencies allowing the roundup and culling of wild horses and burros in national parks, or other forms of intrusion that would send Abbey right into his grave if he hadn't gone there on his own in 1989. Sacrilege, all of it.
No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs --anything -- but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places. An increasingly pagan and hedonistic people (thank God!), we are learning finally that the forests and mountains and desert canyons are holier than our churches. Therefore let us behave accordingly. 
I suppose some might compare being stuck alone in the middle of the Utah desert as a form of solitary confinement, from which madness must ensue. Abbey makes clear that the absence of confinement is the saving grace, allowing him to reap the benefits of his solitary retreat.
But how, you might ask, does living outdoors on the terrace enable me to escape that other form of isolation, the solitary confinement of the mind? For there are the bad moments, or were, especially at the beginning of my life here, when I would sit down at the table for supper inside the housetrailer and discover with a sudden shock that I was alone. There was nobody, nobody at all, on the other side of the table. Alone-ness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society. By society I do not mean the roar of city streets or the cultured and cultural talk of the schoolmen (reach for your revolver!) or human life in general. I mean the society of a friend or friends or a good, friendly woman. Strange as it might seem, I found that eating my supper out back made a difference. Inside the trailer, surrounded by the artifacture of America, I was reminded insistently of all that I had, for a season, left behind; the plywood walls and the dusty venetian blinds and the light bulbs and the smell of butane made me think of Albuquerque. But taking my meal outside by the burning juniper in the fireplace with more desert and mountains than I could explore in a lifetime open to view, I was invited to contemplate a far larger world, one which extends into a past and into a future without any limits known to the human kind. By taking off my shoes and digging my toes in the sand I made contact with that larger world -- an exhilarating feeling which leads to equanimity. Certainly I was still by myself, so to speak -- there were no other people around and there still are none -- but in the midst of such a grand tableau it was impossible to give full and serious consideration to Albuquerque. All that is human melted with the sky and faded out beyond the mountains and I felt, as I feel -- is it a paradox? -- that a man can never find or need better companionship than that of himself. 

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